Making Lemonade

By Will Carlin

Keith Jarrett was not happy.

The legendary American jazz and classical pianist had arrived at the Opera House in Cologne, Germany, late in the afternoon on a dark, wet and cold Friday in January, 1975. He hadn’t slept well in several nights, he was wearing a brace for a bad back, and—after an exhausting drive from Zürich, Switzerland—he was in pain.

But none of these was why he was upset.

He had been convinced to perform in Cologne by a 17-year-old girl named Vera Brandes whose love for jazz was second only to her ambition. After somehow coaxing Jarrett to come, she had managed also to persuade the 1400-seat Cologne Opera House to host the concert.

Aware that Jarrett was a noted perfectionist who sometimes handed out cough drops to his audience so that they would remain silent during his performances, Brandes worked hard to get everything right. She arranged Jarrett’s hotel, she made reservations for his dinner, and she acquired the piano Jarrett requested: a Bösendorfer 290 Imperial concert grand piano.

But her huge drive didn’t match up with her experience, and when she walked Keith out onto the stage for the rehearsal, the piano was the wrong one. Though it was a Bösendorfer, it was a rehearsal model that the staff had found backstage.

It was in poor condition: the keys were sticking, the pedals didn’t work, and some of the felt was worn away. It sounded tinny and thin in the upper registers and weak in the bass register, and because it wasn’t a grand piano, it wasn’t loud enough.

With only a few hours to go before the concert, there was no time to get a replacement. Jarrett, angry, said that he would not play, and walked quickly through the rain to his waiting car.

Moments later, there was a tapping at the car window. Jarrett looked out and this 17-year-old girl, near tears and drenched in the rain, begged him to play.

“And I think at that moment, he just feels sorry for her,” said Tim Harford in a TED talk. “And he realizes she’s just a kid, 1400 people are about to show up for this concert, and there’s going to be no concert… And he agrees to play.”

When he came back a few hours later, Jarrett was tired, frustrated and hungry (the wait staff at the Italian restaurant Brandes had booked messed up his order, and Jarrett was able to eat only a few mouthfuls before having to leave for the concert). He walked onstage to great applause and an unplayable piano.

“We don’t know what exactly was going through his head,” Harford said. “But he sits down, and away he goes. And it’s magic… Within moments, it’s apparent that he is producing something astonishing.

“He doesn’t just cope. He doesn’t just produce a decent performance because he’s a genius… He produces what many people think of as his best performance.”

If a squash court is to a player like a piano is to a pianist, then a slippery floor is the rough equivalent of an out-of-tune piano with sticky keys. Most often, floors get slick due to sweat or high humidity, but on semifinal night in El Gouna in 2012, the issue was sand.

El Gouna is an Egyptian tourist resort located on the Red Sea, and if it’s windy enough, sand can get everywhere. That night, the wind was blowing hard.

The first semifinal, in fact, had to be moved inside from the outdoor glass court because of the sandy floors. With slightly less wind and after extensive court cleaning and testing of the floor by the players, the second semifinal between Ramy Ashour and Nick Matthew was back on the glass court.

When the match began, however, it was apparent that despite everything, the court still was treacherous.

There were numerous stoppages. The players slipped wildly about. The court was swept and swept again. And yet… Ashour played brilliantly right from the start. He blitzed through the first game, 11-4.

“The start was so fast,” said Ramy later. “But then it was all mixed up with all the disruption and stoppages, I really had to work hard to try to stay in my bubble and not get distracted.”

They split the next two games with sometimes magical, scrambling rallies. Nick dove. Ramy dove.

“I’ve never seen him dive before, but for both of us it was just a little slippy,” explained Ashour. “So sometimes it’s easier to dive than to risk a lunge, I dove a couple of times for balls I could reach—it was just easier that way.”

Ramy and Nick had been handed a mess. It was late, there had been delays, the wind was blowing, sand made the court slippery, and the match before theirs was halted and eventually moved.